Personhood: Its Meaning and Context
Posted on July 21, 2011
by Michael Wentz – Parishioner, Cathedral Parish; Coordinator, Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration at Holy Redeemer
The Basis for Personhood
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, submits the following idea: “A human being is a person who is a biological member of the human species, homo sapiens.”1 His point is that all humans, in all stages of development, are persons and therefore are entitled to the basic and essential rights of persons. These rights are specifically enumerated in the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides for the guarantee to life and to the equal protect of the laws of our nation. The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted to eliminate the institution of slavery and the explicit classification of some human beings as “nonpersons” – an issue that became a flashpoint as a result of the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court decision.
In 1973, however, the Supreme Court determined by a 7-2 vote that another particular group of human beings – the unborn – were not legal persons and therefore not protected under the Constitution. This vote mirrored the 7-2 decision that made slaves property or “non-persons” in 1857. Kreeft attempts to clarify: “Confusion about the relationship between persons and humans can cause tremendous harm. Twice the U.S. Supreme Court proved it badly needs philosophy lessons by missing that point that humans are a subdivision of persons rather than vice versa….”2
What makes a human being a human person is that he came from other human persons. Both his father and mother were human persons such that he could be nothing other than a human person. This vestiture occurs as a consequence of one’s inherited biology. The point at which the egg is fertilized by the sperm, creating a zygote, is the definitive juncture when a genetically distinct human person begins his or her existence. Author Randy Alcorn thus defines three objective questions in determining personhood:
- Is it human; that is, did it come from human beings?
- Is it a genetically unique individual?
- Is it alive and growing?
If the answers to these three questions are yes, then “it” is a “he” or “she”, a living person, possessing rights and deserving of protection.3
It can also be said that the rights of human beings are not based on their immediately exercisable capacities but on their common share of human nature that gives rise to natural capacities. By this delineation, one cannot be denied personhood due to intelligence, size, consciousness, or function. This reality is confirmed by science; among those scientists who have no stated political bias, there is an overwhelming consensus that human life begins at conception:
Personhood is not something to be bestowed on living human beings, large or small, by an intellectual elite with vested interests in ridding society of undesirables. Personhood has an inherent value – a value that comes from being a member of the human race.4
Redefining personhood, then, is a purely political exercise that has no foundation in right reason. The unborn, re-classified by Roe v. Wade as non-persons, were given no more constitutional rights than a snapping turtle or redwood tree. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who joined the 7-2 majority in Roe v. Wade in denying legal personhood to unborn humans, was in favor of extending the very same personhood just a year earlier to valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, groves of trees, swampland, and air in Sierra Club v. Morton.5
According to Dr. Charles Rice, the danger we currently face is clear: in a relativistic, positivistic climate, people tend to regard the courts themselves as arbiters of morality where law becomes wholly a question of power, operating without moral limits.6 Morality necessarily becomes a casualty as those in positions of power arbitrarily extend protections to non-persons while denying the same protections to living human beings.
Blessed Pope John XXIII, in his Encyclical, Pacem in Terris, writes, “Any human society, if it is to be well-ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. By virtue of this, he has rights and duties of his own, flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature. These rights are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable.”7
- Peter Kreeft, Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 81.
- Ibid, 81-2.
- Randy Alcorn, ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000), 76
- Ibid, 82.
- Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 742 (1972).
- Charles E. Rice, No Exception: a Pro-Life Imperative (Notre Dame: Tyholland Press, 1991), 9.
- Pacem in Terris, para. 9.